Supergirl might be Supergirl's own worst enemy.
The Supergirl movie released in 1984 might be the entertainment industry's biggest argument against superhero movies and a warning sign that this superhero high we're on now could come crashing down at any minute. The haphazard celluloid tumor was bafflingly bad, prompting critics to sharpen their daggers and throw out phrases like "queasily suspended" and "mildness of the material."
But the most scathing and prescient review came from the late Roger Ebert, who posited that the material should be played earnestly.
"The best way to approach Supergirl is through a statement by Clint Eastwood, who once observed that his spaghetti Westerns worked only because he played them completely seriously," Ebert wrote. "Supergirl doesn't know that."
Recently, we've seen the superhero genre take Ebert's (Eastwood's) advice too literally. Camp and brightness became running gags in Fox's original X-Men trilogy, Spider-Man is now a brooder, the Avengers talk about human sterilization and numbness of feelings, and the upcoming Batman v Superman film looks to pile on even more grayscaled gloom and doom atop Christopher Nolan's turn on the Batman franchise.
But if you read Ebert's words closely, he wasn't saying that camp and joy were the enemy of the superhero genre. He was railing against the condescension and the slapstick treatment of superheroes. There's a difference between a serious superhero and a superhero played seriously. And if Supergirl were given the respect she deserved, we could have had a great film.
CBS's Supergirl, debuting on Monday, October 26 — some 31 years after the film's ill-fated release — understands Ebert's advice much better. By leaning into its earnestness, Supergirl delivers moments of clear, smile-inducing joy. Amidst this age of gloom-and-doom superheroes, Supergirl has no fear of being happy, hopeful, and bright — something that's true to the character that writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino created for DC Comics in 1959. And there's something courageous in that daring pursuit. The result is one of the scrappiest and most irresistible shows on television this season.
Supergirl is a lot more than Superman's cousin
While Supergirl flexes some dazzling special effects — the show feels very expensive — and engages in some complicated myth building, at its heart Supergirl is really about the decision to be great. Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist), was sent to Earth to protect her baby cousin (yes, that would be Superman), but instead gets put in a holding pattern by way of an intergalactic wormhole, which delays her arrival. The show begins a decade or so later. She's left her parents' (Dean Cain and Helen Slater, who played Superman on Lois & Clark and Supergirl in that not-good movie, respectively) small-town home and is now an assistant to media empress Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), a devil who wears Prada. And now, with her cousin saving the world, she wants to do the same.
Her heroism is a choice. The show explores what that really means: how choosing to be a hero makes you a target; how you lose ownership over your story; how the decisions you make for yourself end up affecting the people around you; and how you come to define yourself. While Superman's story is about saving the world, Kara's story is about living up to those lofty expectations.
"By putting on that uniform, Kara decides to live up to the legacies and responsibilities that come with it," Sterling Gates, the writer of DC's Supergirl comic book (2008 to 2011) told Vox when asked about what he thought the character represented.
"In spite of that overwhelming pressure — I mean, her cousin is Superman, for god's sake — she doesn't give up or walk away. If anything, Supergirl works twice as hard to do what she thinks is right so that she's not just defined as 'Superman's cousin,' but by the good she does for the world." he added.
And by wrapping itself around the idea of "Superman's cousin," Supergirl becomes a meta-commentary on the lack of female superhero clout in pop culture. While the presence of superpowered heroines is changing quickly — Marvel's Jessica Jones is debuting on Netflix in a month, the Wasp shares the title of Marvel's just-announced Ant-Man sequel, and Wonder Woman will appear in Batman v Superman — the show makes clear that even though Supergirl is every bit as powerful as her cousin, there are people in her life, including her own friends and fellow women, who don't see it that way. Seeing the ignorance come from alien villains is expected — they're bad guys who are meant to embody everything terrible. But seeing subtle sexism and ignorance come from people who don't necessarily mean it, and seeing how that affects Kara, gives us something much more frustrating and relatable to chew on.
CBS's Supergirl draws from the best Supergirl comic book story ever told
The common and very valid complaint about director Zack Snyder's treatment of Superman in Man of Steel is that it's a joyless film. The hues are muted, as if vampires sucked all the life force from the celluloid. The story transforms Superman into a grim, transient loner.
Hopeless isn't what Superman is supposed to be. Same goes for Supergirl. The characters are supposed to be about awe and possibility. And Supergirl gets right what Man of Steel doesn't by staying true to the comic book.
"Supergirl represents the determination and courage it takes to turn hope into reality," Supergirl comic book co-writers Mike Johnson and K. Perkins (2011 to present) told Vox, when asked about how they envision Supergirl. "Hope that the future will be bright, that things will work out, that our world can be the best version of itself. She's a light leading the way."
Kara's most powerful moment in the comic books is actually her death, which happens in Crisis on Infinite Earths No. 7 — "Beyond the Silent Night" (1985). Editorially it was iconic because the character was beloved and her demise was considered the last time a superhero's comic book death mattered (nowadays, superhero deaths are considered PR and sales ploys). Kara wasn't "fridged," the term for the trope of victimizing women/girlfriends (stuffing them into refrigerators) to teach male heroes lessons. She was killed saving her cousin's life:
Kara's is a completely selfless act. Anti-Monitor, the villain, threatens the lives of her family and friends, and Kara snaps into action. She protects her cousin, but also charges head first into taking out Monitor and saving her friends:
There are moments in Supergirl's first episode that call back to this moment from the comics. Kara would give her life for her sister Alex (Chyler Leigh). She's spurred to greatness when Alex's life is put into jeopardy. But that's also a vulnerability, as her love for Alex is something she values more than her own well-being.
Superheroes are supposed represent the best of humanity. Sometimes that means they're smarter or more powerful than the rest of us. In Kara's case, she shows us how selfless we can be.
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a smile?!
Supergirl is an ambitious show. It contains elements from her comic book source material along with tongue-in-cheek commentary on feminism, the media, and celebrity culture. But the most addictive thing about Supergirl is how it lionizes joy.
This series is not embarrassed to drop the cynicism that's present in many of today's superhero stories and just have fun (Greg Berlanti, who created The Flash, a similarly joyous superhero show on The CW, is one of the show's creators). Kara grins as she's soaring through the air and smirks as she bolts off to confront bank robbers. If we could do the things Kara and her cousin can, we'd be smiling, too.
Supergirl's quieter scenes, and the chemistry between Kara and characters like her co-workers photographer Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) and tech guru Winn Scott (Jeremy Jordan), tap into this so well that it leaves you wishing the show would pare down some of its myth building and just let Kara and her sidekicks zoom around for half a season.
Supergirl is far from perfect, at least in its pilot (CBS only sent critics the first episode for review). There are spots where it's too overbuilt for its own good. Some might find that it lacks sophistication and is occasionally unseemly. But for comics fans (like me), who've watched superheroes slowly trade their joy for popularity, there are moments that will leave you with an irrational grin on your face. Supergirl isn't the best show on television right now, but it's one you might love the most.